LIVINGSTON, NJ – Pyschotherapist Lauren Muriello of the Well Being Therapy Center presented the lecture “Helping Your Teen Develop Healthy Coping Skills for Life” to a packed auditorium of parents of local students in grades 7-12 at Heritage Middle School on Monday as part of the "Parent Series" sponsored by the Livingston Municipal Alliance Committee. 

Chock-full of tips to aid both students and their parents in dealing with everything from parent-teen communication and operating within a social media-saturated culture to dealing with drugs and alcohol, Muriello incorporated helpful videos on how to address each issue and interactive exercises that can be employed at home to stabilize the rollercoaster of emotions teens contend with every day.

Beginning with a primer on brain development from childhood to adulthood, Muriello showed how the brain’s prefrontal cortex—which, once fully developed as late as the early 20s, allows adults to control impulses, make judicious choices, regulate emotions and consider long-term consequences of actions—is still a work in progress in teens.  This lack of development, Muriello explained, can account for a propensity in teens to engage in risky behaviors and experience wildly fluctuating and highly intense emotions that create a more irrational lens through which they view situations.

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“We need to remember that they’re not just being dramatic, they’re truly experiencing these things, biologically,” says Muriello.  “When you’re disciplining your teenager, if they’re getting really emotional, you’re not going to get through. The only thing you can do is to help them calm down.” 

Sending teens to their room, listening to music or simply stepping away can be beneficial for both the parent and the child, according to Muriello, as long as the issue is later revisited when all parties have had a chance to calm down and can approach it more rationally.

The calming mechanism that will work best is different for each person, said Muriello, who demonstrated one viable option: a quick, centering meditation technique where the person concentrates on breathing in and out to the exclusion of everything else, refocusing each time the mind starts to wander. She said encouraging any type of meditative-styled activity, such as listening to music or doing an art project, also works well.

When it comes to the pervasive nature of social media in the world of a teenager, the impact on their social persona can be profound, according to Muriello. Because teens’ thoughts and feelings are largely fueled by what their peers have to say and because social media is so accessible and so frequently checked, Muriello said negative thought patterns can be easily reinforced and opinions more readily shifted than in the pre-handheld device era. 

According to Muriello’s presentation, limiting device time and resisting the urge to allow teens to keep their cell phone in their room while they are trying to get a good night’s sleep can minimize disruptive exposure to the “crowd think.” Parents can also counteract negative thoughts to break the cycle by helping teens identify thought patterns, choosing positive replacement thoughts.

Although good communication fosters healthy relationships, the balancing act needs to be a careful one. One of the most common mistakes parents make, according to Muriello, is not employing what she calls “The New Strict.”  The New Strict is defined as understanding the line that should be clearly drawn between trying to be a friend and needing to be an authority figure who can effectively discipline while simultaneously offering positive and motivational encouragement.

“We’re balancing the teenager’s desire to be independent and have some power and control in their life with the need for you to still protect and guide them,” she said. “You’re going to have firm rules regarding safety, driving, drugs, the Internet, but you’re going to create opportunities to allow them to have freedom and privacy.”

Although alcohol and marijuana are still the two drugs most predominantly used by teens, use of opiates including the prescription drugs Oxicodone and Percoset is also on the rise and sometimes used as a precursor to more advanced opiate drugs like heroin.  Muriello recommends locking up or purging medicine cabinets of these prescriptions. 

“Talk to your kids really candidly,” she said. “Tell them your values. Tell them what you want them to do in a situation where someone talks about it or offers it. 

“They need to have your voice in their heads. Research shows that parents who talk to their kids about drug and alcohol abuse have kids who are less likely to be addicted.”

For more information on these issues or how to improve the relationship with your teenager, visit the Well Being Therapy Center’s website at www.wellbeingtherapycenter.com.